If you’re like many home cooks, you may have jars of pumpkin pie spices and poultry seasoning stashed in your pantry from Thanksgivings past ― but you probably haven’t used them in ages. So with the holidays just around the corner, you might be wondering: Can I use these seasonings again this year, or should I replace them?
It really depends on a few factors, experts say.
Dried herbs and spices do have a long shelf life, sometimes up to a few years, as long as they’ve been stored properly. Still, many chefs recommend replacing these seasonings every year. That is, if you want to add the most flavor to your Thanksgiving dishes.
“You can give them a taste, but most likely, I wouldn’t use them,” Isaac Toups, owner of Toups’ Meatery in New Orleans and developer of the spice line Spiceology, told HuffPost. “What happens is over time, they lose their potency and ultimately lose all flavor.”
But it might be possible to squeeze another year out of your herbs and spices, especially if you’re trying to stretch your holiday food budget as everything gets more expensive. (Turkey prices are already expected to reach record highs.) Chefs offered some tips for how to tell if herbs and spices are still good.
How long do dried herbs and spices last before degrading in quality?
Whole spices, like peppercorns, nutmeg and allspice, can be good for up to four years, according to spice brand McCormick. Cumin, ginger and other ground spices typically last two to four years, and ground and whole leafy herbs, like rosemary, thyme and seasoning blends, for one to three years. Salt can last indefinitely.
“You might have less time to use them up than you think,” said Michelle Doll-Olson, culinary development manager at HelloFresh. It typically takes a year or so for seasonings to go from harvesting to your grocery store shelf, and then they might linger in your pantry for a while after that.
Ann Ziata, a chef at the Institute of Culinary Education, suggested replacing all dried herbs and ground spices after a year to keep them at their most flavorful. She recommends buying whole spices, like cinnamon sticks, nutmeg and cardamom pods, and grinding them yourself. Whole dried spices last longer, and they offer the “most flavorful expression,” she added.
Always check the best-by date
If you can’t remember when you bought that jar of poultry seasoning in your spice drawer, check the best-by date. “Best if used by” or “best if used before” dates state when a product will be at its best flavor and quality, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Best-by dates can be useful to know how old something is, but most herbs and spices will lose their flavor before that date,” Ziata said. She suggested putting your own date label on new herbs and spices so you know when you got them.
Not all seasoning products have best-by dates though, and Toups suggests not buying products without them. “And, always taste them before using them, regardless of the date,” he added.
How to tell if herbs and spices are still ‘good’
Dried herbs and spices don’t go bad in the same way as fresh herbs (or other foods). While it’s possible for spices to become contaminated with salmonella, they’re usually safe to eat past their best-by dates.
What does happen to dried herbs and spices is that they lose their flavor and aroma over time, said Colin Mills, senior recipe developer at HelloFresh. “If you’ve been cooking with them and they’re just not packing the punch they used to, it’s time to replace.”
Give anything that you’ve had for a while a whiff and a quick taste before using it. Those that smell “flat and muted” and have a pale, dull color should be tossed, Ziata said. “The whole point of adding herbs and spices to your cooking is for their flavor, so once the flavor is gone, do not use them.”
Using herbs and spices that are past their flavorful prime likely won’t make you sick, though. They just won’t do your cooking any favors, Doll-Olson said. “Bacteria need moisture, heat and food to flourish. Spice jars aren’t a lot of fun for them, so dried herbs and spices are generally safe to use past their expiration date. They just might be bland.”
How to store seasonings
Properly storing dried herbs and spices helps them keep their flavor longer. Ziata suggests keeping them sealed in a dry, air-tight container in a cool, dry place.
Keep them away from direct sunlight and heat — so storing them next to your stove isn’t a great idea.
McCormick recommends using a spice shelf or turntable to organize spices to keep them in your sights. Spices tucked in the back of your cabinet may not be as visible, and likely won’t get used as much.
How to revive herbs and spices that you’ve had for a while
The best way to rescue mellowed-out herbs and spices is to cook them.
“A light toasting in a dry skillet can bring life back to spices, but be careful not to burn them since ground spices cook quickly,” Mills said. Toast them on medium-low heat (in oil or a dry pan), while stirring constantly, and then let them cool before storing in a jar, according to McCormick.
Cooking dried herbs and spices “always opens up their flavors to their fullest potential,” Ziata said. “Always add dried herbs and spices at the beginning of cooking to allow them time to open up.”
Nutmeg is an exception, as it can lose flavor when it’s cooked for too long, she said.
So can you use your spices from last Thanksgiving?
“As long as these are dry spices and not fresh ones, I say go for it,” Mills said. “Just don’t do it three years in a row.”
Taste and smell them first, though. “If too many of the essential oils have evaporated from the spices, they might be bland, so be sure to taste to see if you need to add more than you normally would,” Doll-Olson said.
Even though Ziata recommends replacing all dried herbs and spices after a year, she said minimizing food waste may be a concern — as is the rising cost of food.
“Buy only the smallest container of spices you will use in a year, and then use them,” she said. “After Thanksgiving passes, add savory spices to rice and add sweet spices to your baked goods, coffee or cocktails.”